Planning and structure has been on my mind lately.

As a freelance writer I’m good at imposing both of these things on my work. I know how to schedule work so I’m not left with idle days but I have time to research and pitch new assignments while working on current ones. I’ve also learned to take time out at the start of every assignment to outline the story I want to write and the information I need to gather for it. I list the people I want to contact and studies I should gather and estimate how long it will take me to do the reporting, revise the outline, and write the story. But this planning doesn’t take more than 30 minutes.

Imposing far-reaching planning and structure on a start-up is proving to be a lot harder, partly because it’s more involved and time-consuming. Instead of a simple story outline I need a marketing plan, a financial plan, a content plan.

But when I know I have a blog to post, a partnership proposal to write, and broken links that need fixing on my homepage, how do I put those things aside to spend the morning mapping out where I want to be in two years? That seems wildly unproductive. 

At the same time, no matter how much I vow to stick to my supposedly crucial to-do list, something else always comes up—an opportunity to jump on, or a problem to trouble shoot—that derails me from it. While some of it needs immediate attention, much of it can wait. I know from managing large editorial projects that being easily distracted is usually a sign that I haven’t thought through what I want to accomplish. I haven’t set clear goals for myself and I need to. 

But then, when I take an evening out to attend a class or panel discussion, the session itself is almost beside the point. While I do come away with useful tips for boosting my search engine results or converting Facebook fans to website users, the real value is setting aside an hour to do nothing but think about my business.

I came out of one of these panels—I don’t even remember what the panel was about—with a clear vision of the content and community I want to develop and the products, business relationships, and revenue streams that can ultimately grow out of it. I’d had fragments of this plan shifting around in my head for some time, but it was the first time they all fell neatly into place. I used the subway ride home to draw a diagram that laid it all out. This, at long last, was my back-of-the-napkin plan.

So I’ve been reminded of two important things. The first is that being busy is not the same as being productive. The second is that spending time not actively working on tasks but thinking about the business can actually be productive in very real ways. 

I'm going to try to routinize this kind of free-thinking and longer-term planning. Some of the time will come out of my workday but some will also have to happen outside of it. I picture one morning and one evening a week. As often as possible I should get away from my office to do it.

At this point, my goal isn’t a comprehensive, formal business plan. I still want to learn more about FamiliesGo! before I do that. But I would like to turn the diagram I drew on the subway into something fuller and more concrete, with a handful of goals for 2012 as well as to-do lists for each. Hopefully I can stick to those.